General American

General American is an accent of American English within American English, General American and accents approximating it are contrasted with Southern American English, several Northeastern accents, and other distinct regional accents and social group accents like African American Vernacular English.

General American in the media

General American—like British Received Pronunciation (RP) as well as most standard language varieties of many other societies—was never the accent of the entire nation. General American is sometimes promoted as preferable to other regional accents. The well-known television journalist Linda Ellerbee, who worked hard early in her career to eliminate a Texas accent, stated, "in television you are not supposed to sound like you're from anywhere"; comedian Stephen Colbert worked hard as a child to reduce his South Carolina accent on account of the portrayal of Southerners as stupid on television of the day. General American is also the accent generally taught to people learning English as a second language in the United States, as well as outside the country to anyone who wishes to learn "American English." In much of Asia, for example, ESL teachers are strongly encouraged to teach American English, no matter their own origins or accents.

Regional home of General American

It is not clear where the accent originates. One fallacy is that it has its origins in the Midwestern accent. Rather the accent of the upper Midwest is distinct and quite a departure from General American English.

The Telsur Project of William Labov and others examines a number of phonetic properties by which regional accents of the U.S. may be identified. The area with Midwestern regional properties is indicated on the map: eastern Nebraska (including Omaha and Lincoln), southern and central Iowa (including Des Moines), and western Illinois (including Peoria and the Quad Cities but not the Chicago area).

Since the 1960s northeastern Ohio and much of the rest of the Inland North have been affected by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

"The fact that the NCS is well established in Michigan is particularly interesting in light of the dominant beliefs about local speech. As research by Dennis Preston has shown, Michiganders believe they are “blessed” with a high degree of linguistic security; when surveyed, they rate their own speech as more correct and more pleasant than that of even their fellow Mid-westerners. By contrast Indianans tend to rate the speech of their state on par with that Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find Michiganders who will claim that the speech of national broadcasters is modeled on their dialect. Even a cursory comparison of the speech of the network news anchors with that of the local news anchors in Detroit will reveal the fallacy of such claims.

Nevertheless, the Michiganders’ faith that they speak an accentless variety is just an extreme version of the general stereotype of Midwestern English."

Particularly important in setting standards was John Kenyon, the pronunciation editor of the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary.



A table containing the consonant phonemes is given below:

  Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Approximant       ()    

The phoneme /ʍ/ is present only in varieties that have not undergone the wine-whine merger. /ʍ/ is often analyzed as a consonant cluster of /hw/. Also, many Americans realize the phoneme /ɹ/ (often transcribed as /r/) as a retroflex approximant [ɻ].


General American has sixteen or seventeen vowel sounds that can be used in stressed syllables as well as two that can be used only in unstressed syllables. Most of the vowel sounds are monophthongs. The monophthongs of General American are shown in the table below:

Monophthongs Front Central Back
plain rhotacized
Mid   ɚ  
Open-mid ɝ
Near Open    

Depending on one's analysis, people who merge the vowels of cot and caught to /ɑ/ either have no phoneme /ɔ/ at all or have the [ɔ] only before /r/. Words like north and horse are usually transcribed /nɔɹθ/ and /hɔɹs/, but since all accents with cot and caught merged to /kɑt/ have also undergone the horse-hoarse merger, it may be preferable to transcribe north and horse /noɹθ/ and /hoɹs/. Thus, in these cases, the [ɔ] before /ɹ/ can be analyzed as an allophone of /o/. Some speakers who have maintained the contrast between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ realize /ɔ/ phonetically lower, closer to [ɒ].

[ɝ] and [ɚ] are often analyzed as sequences of , respectively. [ə] is actually an indeterminate vowel that occurs only in unstressed syllables. Since the occurrence of [ə] is mostly predictable, it need not be considered a phoneme distinct from /ʌ/.

The diphthongs of General American are shown in the next table:

Diphthongs Offglide is a front vowel Offglide is a back vowel
Opener component is unrounded aɪ eɪ
Opener component is rounded ɔɪ


While there is not any single formal definition of General American, various features are considered to be part of it, including rhotic pronunciation, which maintains the coda [ɹ] in words like pearl, car, and court. Unlike RP, General American is characterized by the merger of the vowels of words like father and bother, flapping, and the reduction of vowel contrasts before [ɹ]. General American also generally has yod-dropping after alveolar consonants. Other phonemic mergers, including the cot-caught merger, the pin-pen merger, the Mary-marry-merry merger and the wine-whine merger, may be found optionally at least in informal and semiformal varieties.

One phenomenon apparently unique to General American is the behavior of words that in RP have [ɒɹV] where [V] stands for any vowel. These words are treated differently in different North American accents: in New York-New Jersey English they are all pronounced with [-ɑɹ-] and in Canadian English they are all pronounced with [-ɔɹ-] (thus "sorry" is pronounced by Canadians as "sore-ee"). But in General American there is a split: the majority of these words have [-ɔɹ-], like Canadian English, but the last four words of the list below have [-ɑɹ-], like New York-New Jersey English, for many speakers. Words of this class include, among others:

orange ˈɒɹɪndʒ ˈɑɹəndʒ ˈɔɹəndʒ
origin ˈɒɹədʒɪn ˈɑɹədʒɪn ˈɔɹədʒɪn
Florida ˈflɒɹɨdə ˈflɑɹədə ˈflɔɹədə
horrible ˈhɒɹɨbl̩ ˈhɑɹəbl̩ ˈhɔɹəbl̩
quarrel ˈkwɒɹəl ˈkwɑɹəl ˈkwɔɹəl
warren ˈwɒɹən ˈwɑɹən ˈwɔɹən
borrow ˈbɒɹəʊ ˈbɑɹoʊ ˈbɔɹoʊ
tomorrow təˈmɒɹəʊ təˈmɑɹoʊ təˈmɔɹoʊ
sorry ˈsɒɹi ˈsɑɹi ˈsɔɹi
sorrow ˈsɒɹəʊ ˈsɑɹoʊ ˈsɔɹoʊ

See also

External links



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